Arbitrage and Writing

Here are excerpts from two newsletters that you should consider signing up for if you are a student of economics:

In late June, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s central bank and the banker to the banks, released the household financial debt figures based on select financial indicators. Household financial debt is basically loans that you and I have taken from the formal financial system of the banks (both commercial and cooperative) and the non-banking finance companies (NBFCs).
Of course, there are other ways to borrow as well. One can borrow against gold as a collateral from a local jeweller or simply borrow from a local money lender or borrow money from friends and family, which is why, the RBI calls it household financial debt based on select indicators.
It needs to be kept in mind here that borrowing from the informal sources is perhaps easier but at the same time more expensive, given that the risk for those lending money is higher.
So, what does the RBI data tell us? In absolute terms, the total household financial debt based on select indicators has gone up from Rs 55.38 lakh crore to Rs 73.13 lakh crore, between June 2018 and December 2020.

That is from Vivek Kaul’s (relatively) new newsletter, Easynomics. It is written in Vivek’s trademark style: easy to read, gloriously simple sentences (which is hard to do!), and sprinkled with just enough additional information to keep you engaged as you read through his main points. In short, really, really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the second newsletter:

Despite this, it is unreasonable to expect that the government will reduce tax on these two fuels. Why? Sample this: excise duties on petrol and diesel accounted for a whopping 28 per cent of the central government’s tax revenue last year. Which government would let such a bounty slip by, especially when the country’s economic recovery is fragile? Think about it.
And, unlike income tax and goods and services tax, which entail a collection cost, oil marketing companies just have to do a simple RTGS transaction to pay the fuel tax they collect from us to the government! The government then uses the money for a range of welfare schemes.

You and I may have our own personal opinions about which of these are better to read, but that’s not the point of this blogpost. The point of this blogpost is to point out that both writers have created simple, easy to understand posts about aspects of the Indian economy that matter to the common Indian citizen.

And they have done this by taking data from government websites. This data, as I have discussed here before, is not always easy to acquire. But those of us who have done the hard work of understanding how it is captured, where it is stored, when it is released, and how to go about making it analyzable1, have an advantage over those of us who remain blissfully unaware of all this.

But those of us who are blissfully unaware wouldn’t mind reading about the implications of this data, only if somebody were to take the time and effort to acquire that data and write simple, useful takeaways about it.

In finance, this is called arbitrage:

In economics and finance, arbitrage is the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices at which the unit is traded. When used by academics, an arbitrage is a transaction that involves no negative cash flow at any probabilistic or temporal state and a positive cash flow in at least one state; in simple terms, it is the possibility of a risk-free profit after transaction costs. For example, an arbitrage opportunity is present when there is the possibility to instantaneously buy something for a low price and sell it for a higher price. (Emphasis added)

If you are an economics student, and you know where all this data hides, and you know enough about how this data impacts the daily lives of citizens, and you want to get better at communication, there is riskless profit to be made. Get the data, analyze it, write about it, and give it away for free.

You learn the art and skill of of acquiring this data, you learn the art and skill of analyzing it, you learn the art and skill of writing about it (and you only get better over time, so don’t worry if the first few pieces aren’t “great”). You get to publish stuff that you can put on your CV – in fact, as I am fond of saying, it has the power to quite literally become your CV. Folks get to read what you’ve written, and they therefore understand our field and its implications in their lives a little bit better.

Nobody loses out, and we all win!

And when that great and glorious day arrives, and governments in India acknowledge that the way they make data available to its citizens is crappy, you have the ability to write a series of posts about exactly how the government could do a better job in this regard.

Learn how to work with data if you are a student of economics in India, and then write about it.

It’s a great form of arbitrage.

  1. what an utterly horrible word![]

Understanding Fiscal Policy (3/3)

You might want to read Monday and Tuesday’s post before you begin in on this one.

In today’s post, we conclude by thinking through the section titled “Making Space While The Sun Shines

  1. I’ve used the analogy of a human body throughout this little series, and I’ll press the point a little further here.
    One major problem that crops up when treating a seriously ill patient is about both the strength and the duration of the dosage. How much should the dose be per day, and for how many days should the patient take the medicine?
  2. Similarly, when it comes to fiscal policy, how much is enough? What if you give too little of a push? Then the recovery is anemic. What if you nudge a little bit too much? We’re back in 2011-2014 territory – and please do read The Lost Decade!
  3. Which is where this section of the article becomes really important: there is no model, anywhere in the world, that tell you what to do now. That is a strong way to put it, but let me be clear: there is no model anywhere in the world that will tell you what to do now. The cause of this current crisis, the crossroads at which the Indian economy found itself before this crisis, the uncertainty about how this crisis will play out and eventually end, and the uncoordinated global response(s) to this crisis all put together mean that we economists don’t know for sure how much fiscal policy is too much. We don’t know for how long we should keep the fiscal stimulus going. We’re, as it were, flying blind.
  4. What Sajjid Chinoy is saying, however, is this: whenever you cross a certain threshold of the vaccination drive, you need to start the process of unwinding the stimulus. That is what this excerpt means:
    “Counter cyclicality must be symmetrical: supporting activity in times of a shock, but then quickly retreating to create space when vaccinations reach a critical mass and the recovery becomes more entrenched.”
    Will this actually happen? For India’s sake, let us hope so. Our track record is less than encouraging in this regard.
  5. Familiarize yourselves with the great r>g debates. In this decade, they’re going to matter.
  6. Familiarize yourselves with the meaning and the importance of the primary deficit.
  7. Familiarize yourselves with the what the phrase “dual mandate” means when it comes to monetary policy.
  8. Pts. 5 through 8 are hopefully going to be areas that you will cut your teeth on if you join the market as a macroeconomist over the next five years. Hopefully because if we are still on pts. 2-4 until that point of time, this pandemic will obviously still be with us.
  9. But if it has gone by then, (god, I hope so!), managing the recovery and its aftermath will the macroeconomic challenge of this decade.

Understanding Fiscal Policy (2/3)

This post should be read as a continuation of yesterday’s post.

What are the things to keep in mind when talking about fiscal policy for India in 2021? Sajjid Chinoy mentions two, and we’ll deal with the first of these in today’s post. It is called “Recalibrating To New Realities

  1. Sajjid Chinoy first points out the fiscal deficit situation. Please, whether you are an economics student or otherwise, familiarize yourself with the budget at a glance document. My take on the fiscal deficit for the FY21-22 is that there is no way on earth we’re going to be able to stick to the budgeted 6.8%. Tax revenues will be lower, borrowing will be higher, and I’m not buying the INR 1,75,000 crores disinvestment target. I hope I am wrong!
  2. He recommends not cutting expenditures even if budgeted revenues don’t materialize, and expanding MNREGA funding – and I completely agree.
    We’re getting into the weeds a little bit, but he also speaks about cash transfers instead of MNREGA given the pandemic, and I agree there too. Effectively, he is saying that people might not choose to apply for work because of the fear of getting infected, so drop the cash for work requirement: just transfer.
  3. “Double down on achieving budgeted asset sales targets, because this will provide space for more debt-free spending.” is one of his recommendations. I agree with the message, but find myself to be (very) cynical about the likelihood of this happening. We haven’t managed to meet these targets even once, and were off by an impossibly large magnitude this year, so I don’t see this happening. Again, I hope I am wrong.
  4. I’m paraphrasing over here, but the implicit request by the author is to keep capital expenditure sacrosanct (because of the multiplier effect). The implicit bit is the corollary: if sacrifices must be made, it is in revenue expenditure. The cynic in me needs to be reined in, but I’ll say it anyway: good luck with that.1
  5. Finally, he makes a request of monetary policy, that is acts as a complement to what is written above. That is, monetary policy should not worry about inflation too much this year. It is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s a separate blogpost in it’s own right.
  1. Let me be clear, I agree! I just don’t see it happening, that’s all[]

Understanding Fiscal Policy (1/3)

I wrote this last week on the basis of this write-up by Sajjid Chinoy. The sequel came out last week, so let’s read through it together.

First things first:

  1. During times of a crisis, such as the one we are going through, it may be helpful to think of the economy as a sick person. That would make us economists and policymakers the diagnosticians and doctors respectively.
  2. Us diagnosticians often like to think about why the person got sick. Was it because of some previously administered medicine? Was it because of some external factor? Maybe both? That is, we identify the disease, and the cause of the disease.
    In this case, the economy is struggling because of the lockdowns and the uncertainty about (at least) the near future. Those are the symptoms. The cause is, of course, the virus.
  3. The doctors – that is, the policymakers – will want to remove the cause behind the economy’s illness first. That is what Sajjid Chinoy means when he says: “With a health crisis at the genesis of the current situation, it’s tautological to say that ramping up vaccinations is the “first-best” solution to tackling the crisis.” That is the cause of the crisis, and removing the thing that causes the crisis is of paramount importance.
    The “how to do this best” question has troubled all of us, and continues to trouble us, and it is worth your time to keep tracking this issue. And it is a great way to learn about how to think about public policy.
  4. But treating the symptoms (and the manifestations) of the cause is equally important. Job losses, reduced investment, reverse migration, subdued demand, rising inequality, reduced incomes, the exacerbated lack of social safety nets are all symptoms and manifestations of the crisis. How to treat the symptoms? That is where Sajjid Chinoy’s second article comes into play.

There are two courses of treatments available to us diagnosticians and doctors: fiscal policy and monetary policy. Sajjid Chinoy argues (and in my opinion, does so convincingly) that monetary policy has done all the heavy lifting it could in 2020, and there’s not much left in the RBI’s arsenal.

Monetary policy was the prime mover last year and markets will inevitably clamour for that pedal to be pressed even harder. But quite apart from the fact that monetary conditions are already very accommodative and core inflation has averaged 5 per cent since the start of 2020, what’s less appreciated is the reduced efficacy of monetary policy in periods of elevated uncertainty. That’s because monetary policy ultimately relies on economic agents (households, businesses, banks) to act on the impulses it imparts. But when agents are faced with acute health, income and macroeconomic uncertainty, they often freeze into inaction (“the paradox of thrift”). So households don’t borrow, businesses don’t invest and banks don’t lend. This is evident in the evolution of bank credit over the last year in India. Despite negative real policy rates and falling real bank lending rates, credit growth has continued to slow all year long, likely reflecting these uncertainties.

Homework: What is core inflation? Where is this data to be gotten from? Where do we get data on the evolution of bank credit from? What are negative real policy rates? What are falling real bank lending rates? Where do we get that data from? What is credit growth? Where do we get that data from?1

Which means we must now think about how to best deploy fiscal policy.

The baton must, therefore, pass to fiscal policy. While fiscal policy cannot mitigate the health uncertainties it can help alleviate income and macroeconomic uncertainties. Stronger spending will not only boost activity but, in so doing, will reduce demand uncertainties for firms. Furthermore, income support (in cash or kind) along with public-investment-indu­ced-job-creation can alleviate income uncertainties for households and thereby help catalyse the private sector.

Sajjid Chinoy highlights two broad areas to think about in his article:

  1. Recalibrating To New Realities
  2. Making Space While The Sun Shines

There is much to agree with (and add to) in each of these cases, and I’ll do so in the next two blogposts.

But the bottomline across both articles, for students of macroeconomics, is this:

  1. Think of the economy as a human body. Like the human body, the economy is impossibly complex, and all of its underlying connections, mechanisms and responses aren’t entirely clear.
  2. Like a good diagnostician, it is important to keep tabs on a variety of different metrics on an ongoing basis. That’s what Sajjid Chinoy’s first article should mean to you – and therefore this blogpost is homework you really should do.
  3. Once you have enough data about the patient, a good doctor should be able to recommend potential cures. As with the human body, so with the economy: different doctors will recommend different treatments, and for many (mostly good) reasons. This is the part that gets really tricky.
  4. Sajjid Chinoy’s recommended course of treatment is his second article. As a student, you must try and understand why he recommends this course of treatment and no other, and ask yourself to what extent you agree with him. If you disagree with him (which is fine!), you should be able to tell yourself why – from a theoretical viewpoint.
  5. For example, you may disagree with him and say that India can still effectively deploy monetary policy. Maybe so, but you must have theoretically valid reasons for saying so.
  6. In fact, as a student, my advice to you would be to read an article willing yourself to disagree with the author. “How might this person be wrong?” is a great way to learn while reading. It is also a great way to keep yourself awake in class, trust me.
  1. Not all of the links will give you the exact answers, and that is deliberate. The last two questions being “unlinked” is also deliberate. If you are a student looking to work or study further in areas relating to macroeconomics, start building out a file with your answers to these questions (and many more!), and update the data on a regular basis.[]

A Summer Spent Doing Macroeconomics

Say you’re a student, and you’ve just finished learning a fair bit about macroeconomics. You’ve read and not understood Keynes, you’ve read and think you’ve understood Friedman, and you don’t have the faintest idea what folks in macro have been up to since Robert Lucas.

OK, all that is fine, but how should a budding macroeconomist spend her summer this year?

You could do a lot worse than reading this article, and asking yourself some simple questions.

Such as, do I hear you say? Read on!

Google mobility, for instance, is down more than 40 per cent since the start of April and currently at levels seen a year ago, when the national lockdown was in effect. This dynamic is also visible in the cross-section: states that forced down mobility more strongly have, in general, also seen a larger drop in positivity rates.

What is Google Mobility? What does the data for India look like? How does this data correlate with statewise Covid-19 numbers? Can I create simple tables and charts in, say, Google Sheets that show a link between the two? And write up a blog about how I did it? Or maybe create YouTube tutorials that show how I did it?

That said, there’s growing evidence the impact will not be trivial even if not of the same scale as the first wave. By the middle of May, power demand was down 13 per cent and vehicle registrations were down 70 per cent compared to the start of the quarter, while e-way bills in the first half of the month were at 40 per cent of where they should be. A broader composite index would suggest activity is tracking a 6-7 per cent sequential decline this quarter and, while this is much shallower than the 25 per cent sequential contraction witnessed last year this time, the fact that it comes on the heels of the first shock, and can potentially trigger more hysteresis, remains a source of concern.

Where does the data for power demand come from? Where does the data for vehicle registration come from? Where does GST data come from? What does the phrase “tracking a 6-7 percent sequential decline” mean? What is hysteresis?

Household income uncertainty and precautionary savings can be expected to rise. Even before the second wave, households had signalled caution about future spending (manifested in the RBI Consumer Confidence Survey) likely reflecting both an income hit and a precautionary savings motive. This behaviour is consistent with labour market dynamics wherein the unemployment rate, once adjusted for reduced labour force participation, had increased meaningfully even before the second wave.

What is the RBI Consumer Confidence Survey? How is it calculated (see Annexure A in this document)? Where do we get unemployment data from?

Private investment could also take time to pick up. Even before the second wave, utilisation rates were in the mid-60 per cent range, much lower than needed to jumpstart investment.

What is OBICUS? It stands for Order Book, Inventory and Capacity Utilization Survey. How else do we track capacity utilization?

We have previously found a strong elasticity of India’s exports to global growth and, if that holds, this should drive a strong export rebound in India. Some of this is already visible in the data with manufacturing exports surging in recent months, and currently 18 per cent (in nominal dollar terms) above pre-pandemic levels.

Where might that paper/research be, the one that talks about the strong elasticity of India’s exports to global growth? What does it tell us? What is different between the time that paper was written and today? Is that to India’s advantage or not? How do we tell?

If crude prices average close to $70 this fiscal year, as is expected, that would constitute a 50 per cent increase over last year and serve as a negative terms of trade shock that impinges on household purchasing power and firm margins — a process already underway.

EIA? Or something else? Should we take lagged data? If yes, with what lag? If no, why not? Where do we get information on firm margins? Bloomberg/Reuters? If yes, do we have access to a terminal? If no, whom do we ask for a favor?

When all is said and done, the completeness of an economy’s recovery from Covid-19 — and therefore the level of scarring — is assessed by comparing its post-Covid-19 path of the level of GDP with the path forecasted pre-Covid-19. If the aforementioned forecasts fructify, the level of quarterly GDP at the end of this year would be about almost 8 per cent below the level forecasted pre-pandemic. To be sure, India will not be the only emerging market to be below its pre-pandemic path. In fact, among the large economies, only the US and China will surpass it. But that said, an 8 per cent shortfall is meaningful.

What is the level of GDP, and how is it different from the growth rate of GDP? Which should one use, and how does the answer change depending on the context? Where do we get data on GDP of all countries at one time? Which one of these measures should we use for comparison, and why?

Macro is hard, and in many different ways. Understanding the theory is hard, but piecing together parts of the puzzle from disparate (and at lest in India, gloriously unfriendly) data sources is perhaps harder still. But if you want to “do” macro for a living, being familiar with the answers to these questions is table stakes.

That is, getting familiar with the answers to the questions I have asked here gets you the right to sit at the table. Playing the game better than the others once you’re in is a whole different story. And playing the game means using this data with your knowledge of theory to try and take a stab at the really important questions:

The question, therefore, is how should economic policy respond to this second shock? With fiscal and monetary policy already quite expansive, is there space to respond further? We assess policy options and tradeoffs in a companion piece tomorrow.

Trust me, macro is hard.

Two Very Different Takes

Ajay Shah had what I thought was a pretty good piece in the Business Standard the other day (h/t Murali Neelakantan). While the headline of the piece was “Price controls for vaccines?1, it was essentially about the best way to ensure delivery of the vaccine to every nook and cranny of India.

The great Indian vaccination story has begun. Private health care firms will be required for reaching the masses. A basic tenet of economic policy is that price controls work poorly. If price limits are brought in, this will limit private outreach to cities.

And to make his point, he used the example of demat securities settlement.2

In the event, non-interference prevailed: The price charged by DPs was left to market prices. Competition developed, and the prices charged to customers crashed. Competition ate away the profit rate in the easy urban sites and DPs got the incentive to go forth into the great Indian hinterland, looking for more business. This generated outreach.

Ajay Shah makes the point that this is how markets can work when allowed to, and uses this analogy to make the argument that governments should not cap the prices of vaccines (and their delivery).

So far, from an economists point of view, so good. Markets work when allowed to, and all is well with the world. But Gulzar Natarajan has a different point of view:

This is deceptive and an extremely misleading story. In fact it is shocking that this comparison could even be made. As I shall explain in brief, this extrapolation from the world of demat shares settlement to that of administration of vaccines is all logic with little understanding of the differences between the respective markets.

He raises the following points:

  1. The tendency of those in rural areas to defer medical visits because of poverty/affordability concerns
  2. Share markets are about the luxury of choice. Vaccination isn’t.
  3. Vaccinations lead to large positive externalities3
  4. Market allocation in the face of deep inequality is problematic
  5. Private health clinics may not follow all follow-up protocols.4
  6. Effective markets need strong state capacity. Without it, price gouging, sub-standard medical equipment, fake vaccines are all more than possible.

Read the whole post, please, as usual. Towards the end, he makes the point that it is not about one or the other:

None of this is to say private market should not be part of the vaccine drive. A low enough price should be fixed and vaccines administered privately too. But coverage of the vast majority of Indians in remote and rural areas will have to be through the public system, as has always been the case with all other vaccines.

None of this is meant to be a criticism of either Ajay Shah or Gulzar Natarajan, of course. The point of this post, instead, is to show you three things:

  1. “How might the author be wrong?” is a useful way to read everything.5
  2. The truth lies somewhere in the middle is a thumb-rule that fits almost everything. Especially Indian things. While there are disagreements that I have with Gulzar Natarajan’s piece, he is making the point that ignoring government (or public) delivery of vaccines is fraught with risk – and I agree.
  3. The guy who writes these posts (me, that is) himself didn’t focus enough on pts. 1 and 2 when reading Ajay Shah’s op-ed. Note to self: work harder!
  1. This will be behind a paywall, sorry[]
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means. Run a simple Google search and plunge right in to the first three articles. You’ll get a reasonably clear idea.[]
  3. I’m quoting him, ok?![]
  4. Of course, neither may public hospitals![]
  5. It’s also a useful way to attend classes[]

Understanding fiscal deficits

Fiscal deficit is a phrase that is bandied about every year, but not very well understood – both in terms of how to arrive at it, but also in terms of what it means.

In the first part of today’s post, I’ll explain how to arrive at it. In the second part, I’ll rely on a couple of lines from an excellent article written by Rathin Roy a while ago.

I work at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. This means that while I continue to be employed at the Institute, a salary will be credited into my bank account every month. I can also choose to augment my income by, say, breaking a fixed deposit, or by taking a loan. The first part is my “recurring” income, while the latter is a one-time income.

I stay in a rented accommodation. This means I have to pay rent every month. I also have to buy groceries, pay for utilities, and pay the salaries of everybody who works at my household. But also, every now and then, I can, say, buy a car. Or a laptop. Or a house. These are not monthly expenses – at least not in my household they aren’t! The first set of expenses are “recurring” expenses, while the latter are one-time expenses.

Taken together, what matters in my household is that I must be able to arrange for ways to meet my monthly expenses. Let’s write down some very simple numbers:

  1. Assume that my recurring expenses are one lakh rupees – one hundred thousand INR. (Groceries, rent, salaries, petrol, eating out etc etc)
  2. Assume that for the month of March, my capital expenses are also one lakh rupees. (Maybe I’ve chosen to buy the latest M1 Macbook. One can dream.)
  3. So, my expenses, all told, are two lakh rupees for the month of March 2021.
  4. Assume that Gokhale pays me seventy thousand rupees as my salary. Assume that I augment this income by teaching courses in a couple of other colleges. Let’s assume that I earn one lakh rupees through this recurring income (salary plus visiting faculty income is one lakh per month)
  5. I have no other sources of income. So: 1+2 are my total expenses, against which my total income is 1 lakh rupees (4).
  6. Let’s say I am unwilling to break into any of my savings to purchase this laptop, and choose to borrow the amount instead. That is, no capital income, only borrowing.

So, in essence, the amount that I need to borrow after all possible sources of income have been thought of, in order to meet my total expenses…

That borrowing is my “fiscal deficit” for the month of March 2021.

Homework: to check if you have understood this, try reading the budget at a glance document, and see if you get how Nirmala Sitharaman and team arrived at the fiscal deficit for the government. Page 3 in the PDF.*

OK, so now we know what the fiscal deficit is, and how to go about arriving at it. But is a high fiscal deficit a good thing or a bad thing, and how does one decide?

Well, it depends on what you are borrowing for! For example, as I often say when I am talking to students, they are and should be running a fiscal deficit in their own, personal lives. They’re spending money (rent, food, movies, college fees) but not earning anything at the moment. The idea is that this money is being spent in order to acquire skills that enable them to earn much more in the future. Much more, in fact, than they spend on acquiring that education – or that, at any rate, is the plan.

But what if they instead spend an equivalent amount of money, but not to acquire an education. They spend this money, instead, on buying a Honda Gold Wing. (Yes, I know education isn’t quite that expensive just yet.)

That would be problematic, because you are taking on debt, but for acquiring a depreciating asset (a bike that gets worse over time) and not an appreciating one (your education and your years of experience get more valuable over time).

Or as Rathin Roy put it in a recent Business Standard column:

If the government is merely borrowing to fund consumption expenditure then this is difficult to justify.

and a little while later, in the same piece…

For example, the “golden rule,” which states that governments must finance consumption expenditure out of revenue receipts and borrow only for investment.

There is much, much more to take away from Rathin Roy’s piece, of course (and I’ll write a follow-up piece later this week) – but as a first step towards understanding fiscal deficits, this is more than enough.

*If, for whatever reason, the budget at a glance document is not clear, let me know in the comments below. If more than ten people are interested, happy to arrange a quick video call about it (because, you know, there have been so few of ’em this past year!)

India, Bangladesh, GDP. Sigh.

When I explain GDP to folks unfamiliar with the concept, I often use the analogy of marks.

“Do you”, I intone in the most professorial voice I can muster, “remember how many marks you scored in your math exam when you were in the 4th grade?”

The point behind asking that question is to help the class realize that there were many other things going on in their life in the 4th grade. The measurement of how well you did on the specific questions you were asked in that test on that day do very little to show you how much math you actually learnt that year. Leave alone, of course, the question of how little the math test had to do with all of what you learnt while you were in the 4th grade.

A similar point was made about GDP recently, in the Business Standard:

Take GDP first. In India, we don’t measure the output of 65 per cent of the economy and make only well-informed guesses about the remaining 35 per cent.

That’s exactly right, of course. You shouldn’t obsess over GDP numbers, much like you shouldn’t obsess over grades. But we do obsess over both!

And the analogy between marks and GDP works really well especially now, because when it comes to GDP, we now have a Sharmaji ka beta in the neighbourhood.

Hello, Bangladesh.

About two years ago, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah spoke of “infiltrators” who were hollowing out the country “like termites”. A Minister from Bangladesh retorted that Shah’s statement was “inappropriate”, “unwanted”, and “not based on information”. The IMF’s recent per capita GDP projections for South Asian countries show that the alleged ‘termite factory’ is shining — Bangladesh, which has been doing better than both India and Pakistan on social and human development indicators for several years now, is also beginning to march ahead on the economic front.

In much the same way that you shouldn’t compare marks obtained by students, you really shouldn’t compare GDP per capita between nations.

But (and you knew there was a but coming along, didn’t you), as I also say in my classes – what else you got, eh? It’s all well and good to say we shouldn’t, but it’s not like we have readymade alternatives. And if you take the GDP factory away from us economists, how do we fill our days?

TCA Srinavasa-Raghavan, in the same column cited above, has three answers:

Only three things: Food inflation, because it has a direct bearing on welfare; foreign exchange reserves, because they serve as a powerful signalling device to foreign investors and sellers of goods; and the revenue deficit. These are the only things the Centre has total control over. In determining all other indicators, the states play a big role.

Read the whole article (which, I’m sorry, may well be behind a paywall). I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, about which more below, but the point that GDP is overrated as a useful barometer for the state of the economy is a point I agree with wholeheartedly.

TCA’s suggestions about what is to be used instead (food inflation, the revenue deficit and forex reserves) are worth considering, but there is a long list of alternatives that have been suggested. Here is just one example:

Provincial officials have long been suspected of overstating growth. Adding their figures together suggests that China’s economy was $364 billion bigger in 2009 than the total in the national accounts. Mr Li preferred to track Liaoning’s economy by looking at other indicators: the cargo volume on the province’s railways, electricity consumption and loans disbursed by banks.

Other folks may come up with other things to use as a proxy for measuring the state of the economy, but really, it is the old story of the six blind men and the elephant all over again. Whatever you use will give you only a limited picture. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Worse! Whatever you agree to measure instead of GDP immediately becomes susceptible to Goodhart’s Law:

In a paper published in 1997, Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern generalized Goodhart’s law beyond statistics and control to evaluation more broadly. The phrase commonly referred to as Goodhart’s law comes from Strathern’s paper, not from any of Goodhart’s writings:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

(Emphasis added)

So sure, you could ask that food inflation, revenue deficits and forex reserves be the target. But it’ll just be cobras or rat tails all over again.

So GDP, whether you like it or not, whether its measurement is favorable or not, is not going to go away anytime soon, whether in India or elsewhere.

Consider the concluding paragraph from a column in the Livemint yesterday by R Jagannathan:

This does not make GDP calculations worthless, but the real focus should be on sectors. More than macroeconomics, sectoral understanding and microeconomics ought to be central to policy-making. Future GDP will best be estimated as a sum of its parts, and not as a whole extrapolated from numbers in the more visible parts of the economy.

Yes, well, sure. Absolutely.

Now if only we could figure out the how.

Five articles for 10th July, 2020

  1. “A moment later, the soft in-out of normal respiration, which I’ve listened to my whole life (mostly without being aware of it, thank God), has been replaced by an unpleasant shloop-shloop-shloop sound. The air I’m taking in is very cold, but it’s air, at least, and I keep breathing it. I don’t want to die, and, as I lie in the helicopter looking out at the bright summer sky, I realize that I am actually lying in death’s doorway. Someone is going to pull me one way or the other pretty soon; it’s mostly out of my hands. All I can do is lie there and listen to my thin, leaky breathing: shloop-shloop-shloop.”
    Stephen King on his accident from 1999, and getting back to writing. ‘Nuff said.
  2. “Rather than outright ranking the movies, which would be a truly impossible task, I thought I’d put together a guide that would hopefully help people getting into Ghibli for the first time. This is obviously very subjective, and even then I’m not necessarily putting my favorites toward the top of the list; this is about easing you into the studio’s work and making sure you don’t write it all off after accidentally watching Tales from Earthsea.”
    Dear reader: if you haven’t experienced (“watched” is a poor word in this context) Studio Ghibli movies, read this article, and then write off the next four or five evenings. At least. And I envy you your discovery!
  3. “Tetlock established a precise measurement system to track political forecasts made by experts to gauge their accuracy. After twenty years he published the results. The average expert was no more accurate than the proverbial dart-throwing chimp on many questions. Few could beat simple rules like ‘always predict no change’.”
    A short, but well written summary/review of Superforecasters. Read the book too!
  4. You may have noticed – but then again, you may have not (and who can blame you), but my sentences tend to be complicated, and full of em dashes. Well, so what of it?
  5. “Low capital cost is why cloud kitchens with curious names (Bhookemon, for one) are quickly scaling up to deliver the same menu at different pin codes with consistency. Apart from low rentals, the sourcing of ingredients is centralised, the R&D happens at a base kitchen and once a recipe is finalised, it can be easily replicated at different locations.”
    On the emergence of cloud kitchens in India, and what this might look like a year or so down the line.

Notes on “Re-aligning global value chains” Part II

Yesterday, we took a look at how China makes it difficult for supply chains to move away from that country. That happens through a combination of mind-boggling scale and efficiency, coupled with astute moves up the ladder in terms of no longer dealing with just cheap manufacturing. Think robotics, app development, advanced and skilled manufacturing units. After that, the gravity model takes over, and well, good luck moving out of China.

Today, we ask the following question: let’s assume that all that is somehow put to the side, and a country is looking to move out of China. What are the chances this firm will come to India?

Again, we’ll use Gulzar Natarajan’s excellent article as the basis of our discussion, and foray into other parts of the internet. Let’s begin:

First, a quote from within Gulzar Natarajan’s post:

“Nomura Group Study found that in 2019, out of the fifty-six companies which shifted their production out of China, only three of these invested in India; while 26 went to Vietnam, 11 to Taiwan, and 08 to Thailand. In April 2020, Nikkei noted that out of the 1,000 firms which were planning to leave China and invest in Asian countries, only 300 of them were seriously thinking of investing in India.”

300 out of 1000 isn’t great, you might think, but it’s not bad, surely. Well, read again: it’s “seriously thinking”, not actually relocated. If you want to take a look at action, not thoughts, it is 3 out of 56. About 5%.


Let’s begin with this tweet:

And here’s (to my mind) the most interesting quote from within the editorial:

“The situation is far worse when it comes to comparisons with China in the EoDB. It takes double the time to start a business in India as compared to China, around six times as much to register property and double the time—and also in terms of the value of the contract—to enforce a contract. And, this is without even looking at the policy flip-flops that this newspaper catalogues diligently.”

The real measure of success when it comes to the Ease of Doing Business ranking is not how far we’ve come, but far we have to go. And it’s going to be a long haul.

This article, which I got from reading Gulzar Natarajan’s post, is instructive in this regard.

Sample this:

““Navigating labour laws is a total mine-field because interpretation is left to the courts and the officers and can be done in more than one way and removing an incompetent worker is not easy,” Gopal said. “I can get a divorce faster than removing a factory worker for non-performance.” In Karnataka, an employer would have to give three warning letters, a show-cause notice, have two inquiries — one external and one internal, and then terminate an employee only if the charges are proved to be serious. “Theft is considered serious but if an employee is lazy and doesn’t perform, that may not be taken as serious,” Gopal says. “In one’s own company, one cannot hire and fire.””

This article is just about furniture, but there are similar problems in every single sector in India.

To which, usually, there are two responses:

  1. Yes, but we have to start somewhere, don’t we?
  2. Yes, but we’re so much better than we were before!

Yes, sure, in response to both of these statements. But keep in mind that firms who are looking to move here are not going to ask if we’re better than we were before. They’re going to ask if we’re better than our competition today. Are we better than Vietnam, for example? What about Bangladesh? And if the answer is no, why should firms come here?

For our domestic market isn’t (yet) a good enough answer, unfortunately.

Our domestic consumption wasn’t large enough or lucrative enough for firms to locate themselves here before the pandemic – it’s obviously reduced since then.

And bureaucracy (not to mention bureaucracy-speak!) has gone up:

“On Sunday, for instance, the home ministry issued a clarification intended perhaps to limit the numbers of those who would be allowed to travel to their villages to a category called ‘genuine’ stranded migrants. The letter from the Centre to chief secretaries in the state administrations reads: “The facilitation envisaged in the aforesaid orders is meant for such distressed persons, but does not extend to those categories of persons, who are otherwise residing normally at places, other than the native places for purposes of work, etc. and who wish to visit their native places in normal course.”

I think I am reasonably good at English, but I still don’t know what this means. Even if I were to understand it, I do not know how I would go about implementing it! And that’s me, a guy who teaches using the English language for a living, and writes a blog in the English language. What chance does a manufacturer have? What chance does a non-Indian manufacturer have?

Government, in plain simple terms, has to get out of the way. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

R Jagannathan writes in the Livemint:

“Companies compete, while governments can only enable. Governments cannot create global champions, though mercantilist countries like Japan, South Korea and China did do so at one point. What governments can do is create an enabling policy and regulatory environment that fosters economic growth and lets companies scale up. Airtel and Reliance Jio did not emerge as India’s two big telecom survivors because the government anointed them as winners. Nor did TCS, Infosys and Wipro become global outsourcing giants because of the government. They became global biggies because the policy environment for their growth was positive both in India and abroad.”

I might wish to disagree with parts of that excerpt (Studwell alert!), but I am in complete agreement with the broad message:

“The government holds the lock but not the keys to Atmanirbhar Bharat. As long as the lock is well oiled, companies will find the keys on their own.”

As of now, though, the lock is far too rusty, far too old and far too much like a pre-1991 model.